Sometimes a seemingly simple hike can leave a lasting impression. It is often caused by something random; perhaps a wildlife sighting, a change in the weather, or a view of a sunset. I’ve had many such memories from hikes across America that will stick with me as long as I live. One example is the experience I had on the unassuming Watchman Trail.
Joe and I headed for the trailhead a few hours after returning from the riverside walk. Storm clouds hovered over Zion for most of the afternoon. The rain began when we were eating lunch outside Zion Lodge. We then hopped back on the canyon shuttle and returned to our tent to make an attempt at rain proofing our site. We hung tarps and did our best to pass the time while the rain persisted. We played poker, using pistachios to make bets. After several rounds of pistachio poker we drove into Springdale, a small town just outside the park, to do a little grocery shopping.
By the time we returned to our campsite in the Watchman Campground the rain had ceased. We wanted to go on a hike since we were leaving the following morning. However, time was no luxury. It was nearly sundown and, perhaps more importantly, we had steaks marinating.
We decided to embark on the Watchman Trail. It was a hike we knew very little about, but the trailhead was just a short walk from the campground. The trail began near the Visitor Center, where a small sign stood next to the Virgin River. The water flowed with ease there. It was thin and slow-moving, yet beautiful and calming.
It started off as a relaxing stroll beside the river. The path was wide and flat, surrounded by long green grass. The trail was supposed to be about three miles roundtrip, but that was all we knew. Based on the beginning, we assumed the whole trail would continue to hug the east bank of the Virgin River. That was not the case. And after about a quarter mile of easy walking next to the river the trail broke away to the right.
We walked across a paved service road and then a small field. The sky above was still overcast, but we were optimistic that our short hike would remain rain-free. We were around a half mile from the trailhead when the path began an uphill climb.
For the next mile we ascended a dusty dirt trail towards a rocky bluff. It began as a long gradual slope. The path was fully exposed to the sun. However, we didn’t have to worry about a beating sun in the desert, because the clouds were growing darker by the minute. While there were no trees providing shade for the trail, there was plenty of vegetation low to the ground. There was sage brush, prickly pear cactus, and plenty of wildflowers. The flowers were both tremendously colorful and incredibly smelling.
About halfway up our climb the rain returned. It felt good at first; a light, refreshing rain. I recommended we turn back to avoid getting completely soaked, because we still hadn’t gone too far and it would be an easy return downhill. However, Joe wanted to continue and I said alright. We carried on and shortly afterward thick sheets of rain fell from the sky. It was intense. Brown and red puddles formed on the trail and water began to flow down the path toward us. Nevertheless, we marched on through the pouring rain. My wide-brimmed hiking hat kept my face mostly dry. And my backpack passed its first serious rain test, keeping my camera gear dry. Joe later told me that he had thought about turning around at one point, but saw that I was determinately following him up the trail, so he didn’t mention anything.
So far the incline had been fairly steady, though it was steep at times. The rain made those spots extra difficult, because the trail became slippery. We slowly trudged up some very soggy switchbacks.
The rain stopped just before we reached the top. It did not slowly diminish from a downpour to a steady rain to a light sprinkle. It was sudden, like someone turned off a faucet. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The moisture from the rain amplified the many vibrant colors of the wild flowers atop the bluff. Colors ranged from yellow to orange, blue, and purple. Several bright green cacti with long sharp spikes lined the path, so we had to be careful where we walked.
The trail follows along the edge of the mesa in a half mile loop. We continued along the path, surveying our surroundings. The ground at our feet mostly consisted of red dirt. Besides for the short flowers and cacti, there was little vegetation atop the bluff. There were some small bushes and a few twisted trees, but that was it, leaving the area highly exposed to the elements.
We stuck to the trail as we circled the scenic vista. The surrounding drop was steep, with a drop off of a couple hundred feet. There were great views from the brink. Multiple buttes and imposing rock formations stood across the valley including the Alter of Sacrifice, which had a noticeable red stain near the top.
The farther we continued along the loop, the better the sights became. We walked slowly, trying to take in the views of the surrounding plateaus and mesas. We stopped and took a few pictures of the colossal sandstone monuments shrouded by gray clouds.
We rambled on, nearing the end of the circle, when we stopped dead in our tracks. Before us was a spectacular scene. Off in the distance was Watchman Peak, the rugged orange mountain that overlooks Zion. The Watchman was bathed in a soft glow. The emerging sunlight had just parted a cluster of black menacing clouds making the mountain look majestic. Dark storm clouds still circled Watchman Peak, but the sky directly above it was pure and unscathed. The way the sun highlighted the impressive monolith through the hole in the clouds made it look heavenly and out of this world. It looked like it had a dark halo. Oftentimes mountains can have isolated storms right above them, but this was an example of the exact opposite.
I believe I said “Wow, look at that,” or something equally philosophical. Then we both lowered ourselves down to the damp ground and sat with our legs dangling over the brink. We sat on the cliff’s edge gazing out at the immaculate sight before us for a few minutes. I later described it as “seeing heaven,” because that was the first thing that came to mind. It was a definite moment of Zen. After a few minutes I got up and took some photographs, but they couldn’t compare with the experience of actually being there and seeing it in person.
Once we were able to fully break free of our trance we completed the loop atop the bluff. In addition to the stunning rock formations that filled the horizon we had a nice view of the entire Visitor Center complex below and the neighboring town of Springdale. We lingered atop the red bluff taking more pictures and enjoying the views before finally starting our descent. There was still a heavily overcast sky, so it wasn’t as hot as it normally would have been up there, which was comforting. However, we didn’t realize it at the time, but the clouds also succeeded in disguising the fact that nightfall was quickly approaching. Not only did we want to get down the trail quickly to feast on our marinating steaks, but we had to start worrying about the possibility of hiking in the dark.
Thankfully, our trip down was a breeze. Due to the dry heat, the trail was almost completely dry by the time we started down the trail. It wasn’t a very steep grade, which meant we were able to fly down the path. The switchbacks made the descent quick and easy. The only problem was that it was growing darker with each progressive step.
It wasn’t until we were down on flat ground, almost to the Virgin River, that the sun fully disappeared from view. It got dark a little earlier than we expected, because the area was surrounded by so many tall rock formations blocking the low sun. The color continued to dissipate out of the sky as we walked next to the whimsical river. And by the time we returned to the trailhead we were standing in darkness.
When we first began our hike it was very easy for us to find the trailhead from our campsite. It was an entirely different story in the dark. We initially thought we knew where we were going. So, we walked around in the dark, thinking we were on the right track, until we were wandering for twice as long as we thought we should. We couldn’t find our campsite loop anywhere and even crossed the Virgin River a couple of times in the process. At first, we found our predicament humorous, but that quickly turned into frustration. That’s when I put my headlamp on. I was hopeful that some added light would help show us the way to our temporary home. It didn’t. We walked for nearly an hour before giving up and asking a park ranger zooming around in a golf cart for help. Suddenly it seemed so simple and we were back to our tent… and our steaks within minutes.
Upon our arrival we immediately tossed our steaks on the grill. We didn’t even bother starting a fire, because it was so late. We were hungry and tired, and still a little annoyed about wandering aimlessly for so long. Thankfully, our steaks were worth the long wait. I felt much better after our late dinner. We had a couple of local Utah beers by the soft glow of my lantern. After discussing our brief time in Zion, we hit the hay around 11:30 p.m., ready to head to the Grand Canyon in the morning.